PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Ottawa offered no answer for the surging Penguins. The way Pittsburgh is playing now, with offence up and down a lineup that isn’t being dominated by stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Senators couldn’t help but wonder if any team does.
James Neal scored a hat trick as the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the third time in six seasons by closing out the Senators 6-2 in Game 5 on Friday night.
Just as Ottawa’s franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson foresaw following a 7-3 Penguins rout in Game 4, the Senators weren’t good enough to rally from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in six attempts in franchise history. After winning Game 3 on home ice with a comeback that started in the final minute of regulation, they were outscored 13-5 in two runaway Penguins victories.
“They were better than us in each and every game and I was just trying to put the pressure on them,” said Alfredsson, who acknowledged after Pittsburgh’s 7-3 win in Game 4 it would be extremely difficult for the Senators to rally. “I still believe that we could do it, if we win one game I think that comment helps us, and that’s where it came from.”
The 40-year-old Alfredsson, an Ottawa fixture since 1995, said he will decide at some point in the off-season whether he will return for a 17th NHL season.
“It’s really tough with four young kids at home,” Alfredsson said. “That’s kind of where I struggle personally. I’ll talk to (the Senators) and see what they think. I think I still can play, I really enjoyed the playoffs and had a lot of fun with it. I’ll take a little bit of time, I don’t want to make a quick decision.”
Coach Paul MacLean said of Alfredsson and defenceman Sergei Gonchar: “My expectations are they will come back until they tell me.”
After beating Montreal the opening round following an injury-filled season in which they surprisingly made the playoffs, the Senators were good enough to win only once in a series decided by Pittsburgh’s offensive execution and a scoring depth that ranges far beyond Crosby and Malkin. Brenden Morrow, Kris Letang and Malkin each added singles for the Penguins on Friday, while Neal’s goals gave him five in the final two games of the series.
“We got to our game a lot. The depth we had showed,” Crosby said. “Different guys chipping in, the whole way through we didn’t have many lulls where we lost momentum at any point.”
The Penguins were aided by the solid goaltending of Tomas Vokoun, who made 29 saves and doesn’t appear willing to give back his job to former Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury any time soon.
Pittsburgh, which led the conference during the regular season, will play either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. Boston leads 3-1 in a series that resumes Saturday night.
“They have a good team and they’re really pushing for it,” Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson said. “Right now, they’re playing the way they want to. The first two games (in Pittsburgh) we weren’t prepared for what they were bringing, they played really well and we definitely didn’t play the way wanted to. … They came out and started stronger the last game (Game 4) and this game as well.”
For the Senators, who generated only goals by Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris, it was yet another disappointing conclusion to a season. They have failed to advance past the conference semifinals since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2007, but they advanced one round further than they did a season ago.
“A lot of things have to go right for you to get past each round,” goalie Craig Anderson said. “The deeper you go, the harder it gets. The better teams keep advancing and the opponents get tougher and tougher. We have to continue to get better. If you’re not growing you’re dying, and we need to keep growing.”
Much like the series, Game 5 didn’t take long to decide as the Penguins overwhelmed Anderson with waves of scoring attempts—even when Crosby, who had just an assist, and Malkin weren’t on the ice.
“We didn’t respond to start Game 4 and we didn’t respond after losing Game 4,” Turris said.
Malkin did get Pittsburgh’s fourth goal, his fourth of the playoffs, on a short breakaway created by the turnover Neal generated at mid-ice in the final minute of a second period in which Pittsburgh scored three times.
Neal added his second of the game unassisted at 11:07 of the third, and his sixth of the playoffs and third of the game with 2:39 remaining.
“Everything he’s done, especially the last couple games, he’s created a lot of chances for himself,” Crosby said of Neal. “That whole line (Jarome Iginla-Malkin-Neal) has been pretty hard to stop. They’re not fun to play against.”
The Penguins are averaging 4.27 goals a game through 11 playoff games, the best such pace of any team since the 1992-93 Penguins averaged 4.17 goals per game. Pittsburgh has also scored at least four goals in nine of 11 playoff games, only once failing to score fewer than three, a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 3 in Ottawa.
But they recovered from that lone defeat in the series to easily win the final two games, including the Game 4 rout in which MacLean’s post-game news conference lasted only 13 seconds and Alfredsson couldn’t generate much optimism for a series comeback in a quiet dressing room.
“I think we’ve been confident the whole series against Ottawa,” Letang said. “We knew that playing a north-south (fast-paced) series would get us rewarded.”
In Game 5, the Penguins never trailed after Morrow, who missed Wednesday with an undisclosed injury, beat Anderson down low off a pass by Mark Eaton 6:25 into the first. The play was started after longtime Senators antagonist Matt Cooke beat Jared Cowen to the puck and threaded a pass to Eaton.
The goal was reviewed briefly before it was determined Morrow did not use a distinct kicking motion while directing the puck by Anderson.
Neal made it 2-0 on a power play created by Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s interference penalty nearly 7 1/2 minutes into the second, and Letang pushed it to 3-0 with a 4-on-4 goal just over five minutes later.
Tyler Kennedy skated the puck out of his own zone before sending a pass to the left circle to Letang, who cut into the high slot to beat Anderson with a hard wrist shot.
Michalek, reunited on a line with Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, finally got Ottawa on the board late in the second period.
But the Senators didn’t have nearly enough — not in this game and not in the series.
“They (the Penguins) really showed the step you have to take to continue to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” MacLean said. “I can tell them it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be harder, but I think we got a solid lesson in terms of what it takes.”